Father John Joseph Therry, c 1854
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Father John Joseph Therry, a native of County Cork in Ireland, was the first official Catholic priest appointed to NSW. Arriving in 1820 with his superior, Father Philip Conolly, Therry became a champion of the Irish cause, ministering in NSW and Van Diemen’s Land until his death, in Balmain, in 1864. He was a spiritual leader, as well as a cultural and community advocate for the Irish. Yet the manner in which he represented himself to colonial officials generated considerable animosity, so much so that successive governors hoped that Therry — who was shielded by wealthy white emancipists — would retire to Ireland. The Therry collection illuminates not only the strengths and failings of the man himself, it forms a rich tapestry of the lives of those he served, both in the penal colony and in early-nineteenth century Ireland.

That the State Library of NSW houses this significant collection of personal, business and religious manuscripts at all — it totals more than 120 boxes — is somewhat miraculous. Carted around the country for decades, the Therry estate’s main beneficiaries, the Jesuit Fathers, donated the complete collection in 1968.

Within the many boxes can be found official correspondence to colonial governors and officials, clergy papers, convict and family petitions, marriage records, and names of subscribers (donors) to the growing number of Catholic churches across NSW and Van Diemen’s Land. There are also details of Therry’s many personal property holdings, diaries, homilies, speeches and official communications. Strikingly, many letters involve colonial or Irish disputes and more than a few make financial claims against Therry himself. While most correspondence is written in English, some is in Gaelic or Latin to bypass the prying eyes of the British.

The collection’s largest component is extensive personal correspondence between convicts and their Irish families. Often heart-wrenching and intimate, the letters reveal the intensity and impact of forced separation on relationships caused by involuntary transportation, colonial struggles, prejudice against Catholics and ill treatment by ‘masters’. They also reveal Therry’s ‘kingmaker’ role as confidante of many Irish in the colony. These letters overturn traditional hagiography of Therry, showing instead a complex, controversial figure, whose recalcitrance, at times, was directed not only at colonial officials, but at authorities within his own church.

Many convict letters were scrawled on flimsy paper, their awkward sentence construction and spelling errors sometimes indicative of low levels of education. Yet these were genuine attempts to convey correspondents’ feelings and the hardships they experienced. Many a person on death row, including men who were Protestant or Jewish, sought Therry’s spiritual assistance on the eve of their departure from this world. Letters from Ireland show educated and insightful women, shunned because of their husband’s alleged political involvement, anxious to leave a deeply troubled country.

Overloaded with administrative, pastoral and cultural duties, Therry was by no means an exemplary administrator. The high volume of correspondence he received and his constant travelling throughout NSW must have made it difficult to keep up. As the Irish community’s de facto postmaster, Therry received an influx of letters from each transport ship addressed to the ‘Parish Priest of New South Wales’. Some were from clergy or from his own family. One typical letter, from his sister, begins, ‘My dearest Brother, Two years have nearly lapsed before we had the happiness of receiving your letter of the 30th June 1823 and we shall be in the greatest anxiety till the receipt of the next.’

Other letters provided character references or explanations as to why a particular convict was convicted and transported. One, sent from a Dublin priest in 1827, began, ‘The Bearer has been most attentive to his religious duties during a period of eleven months. His public conduct from report and observation has been strictly edifying — I recommend him to the kind and charitable attention of the Roman Catholic Pastor of Sydney.’

Therry distributed mail through his networks but, as was the case with marriage certificates, convicts’ money and wills, he became the custodian of many letters, especially those discussing political issues such as the Insurrection Acts aimed at curbing Irish unrest before Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

A fundamental yet unnerving question is why he retained so many original letters intended for families in Ireland and for convicts in Australia. Were they copies? Or is it possible they were never sent at all?

We do not know if Therry’s educated and loyal clerks, including Patrick Garrigan, Roger Murphy, Andrew Higgins, James Cassidy and Thomas Byrne, copied the letters. This would have been a mammoth project, beyond their limited resources. There is evidence that some of Therry’s official letters to governors were copied.

Drawings taken from The pictorial history of the Catholic Church in Australia, Volume 1, 1959
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Many original letters do not appear to have left the colony, which helps to explain the frustration expressed by wives who felt their husbands were tardy in responding to communication. Johanna Lewis, wife of Patrick Sullivan, transported in 1822, wrote to her husband in July 1821, ‘I am very uneasy in my mind ever since you left Cork and will be so, untill I hear from you.’ Later in the same letter she wrote, ‘Dear Pat there is a good many women going out to their husbands now, by their husbands making interest with the Governor ... ’ She signed the letter ‘your Affectionate Wife till Death’, not knowing she would never see her husband again.

Therry received an influx of letters from each transport ship addressed to the ‘Parish Priest of New South Wales’.

For more than a decade, Johanna Lewis petitioned authorities in Ireland and Father Therry himself for free passage for both her and her daughter to join their husband and father. Johanna scolded him for only replying to four of her twenty letters. Patrick, a former shopkeeper from Cork, was an unlikely convict and was probably unfairly linked to the Rockite political movement. Refusing to attend Protestant services, he was sentenced to the Phoenix Hulk in what is now Lavender Bay before being re-transported to Norfolk Island. As overseer of a work gang, Patrick was brutally attacked and killed in 1833. Sadly, word did not reach Johanna. She sailed, though not with her daughter, on the Neva, which sank off King Island in 1835. A total of 224 people in Sydney Harbour, including Johanna, drowned. She and Patrick were finally reunited, but in a different world.


Damian Gleeson is the Library’s 2022 Australian Religious History Fellow.

This story appears in Openbook spring 2022.